Defense lawyers’ revised strategy may moot subpoena for Medill student journalists’ records

The showdown over state prosecutors’ demands for the news-gathering materials of Northwestern University student journalists may be resolved without confronting the core issue of the students’ entitlement to protection under the Illinois reporter shield law.

Lawyers for Anthony McKinney, whose conviction in the 1978 shooting death of a Chicago security guard was the subject of the student journalists’ investigation, have decided not to rely on three witnesses whose testimony is central to prosecutors’ subpoena to the Medill Innocence Project.

The Project is part of Northwestern’s journalism school, and students enrolled in Prof. David Protess’ investigative reporting class work as a team gathering information about criminal convictions that have been called into question.

On Wednesday, lawyers for the Project told the Cook County, Illinois, court that prosecutors’ demands have been mooted by the McKinney legal team’s decision not to focus on three witnesses, interviewed by the Medill students, who gave statements implicating other suspects and exonerating McKinney.

The State’s Attorney argued that disclosure of the students’ notes, interview tapes and other newsgathering materials — which normally can be withheld under the Illinois reporter’s privilege — was necessary to establish whether the students had induced two of the witnesses to shade their stories, in hopes of receiving higher grades. Eighteen leading journalism organizations and professional media companies, including the Student Press Law Center, jumped to support the Northwestern journalists with friend-of-the-court briefs, defending the students’ work as legitimately journalistic.

The defense team’s refocused strategy may provide the Cook County Circuit Court with a way out of a troublesome evidentiary dispute that has overshadowed the larger and more important issue of McKinney’s entitlement to a new trial.

“I hope we can put an end to this sideshow, but that’s up to the prosecutors now,” Protess, a veteran investigative journalist and the founder and director of the Medill Innocence Project, told The Daily Northwestern.

The national attention drawn to the Northwestern students’ plight has benefited all student journalists by showcasing the professional-caliber reporting being done on campuses, and the urgency of a professional-strength reporter’s privilege to protect it.

Many state shield laws limit their coverage to those receiving substantial pay — which would leave a Medill-type project vulnerable — and students’ status under a proposed federal reporter shield remains in question. Regardless of how the Medill subpoena is resolved, student journalists should use their editorial soapbox to let state and federal legislators know that a journalist’s ability to protect confidences cannot depend on the size of his paycheck.